Bad Traffic is a short story of five chapters, posted over five week days -- by me, your corrosive host, Cheeseburger Brown.
This story should only be read in a well ventilated area. If you feel dizzy or light-headed suspend use and have a glass of water.
The week opens with our penultimate chapter:
Alishaer was making rounds of the parking lot stepping on his own shadow when Yves waved for his attention, hanging off the side of his truck. Alishaer jogged over as Yves pulled on his jacket and turned on the motor. The truck chortled happily, brown rings of warm, greasy soot chuffing from its pipes.
"We are going now, Mr. Yves?"
Yves nodded. "We are going now."
There was patchy rain across Nebraska, the highway crossed by parades of fat clouds trailing veils of mist with lakes of sunshine in between. Traffic was light but restless, speed vipers struggling through parades of more cautious cars and then blazing on ahead once free. The impatient opportunists irritated Yves, who did his best to open up the way so they could sail past him right into the radar traps. He chuckled to himself moments later as they passed the speeders pulled over at the side of the highway, hemmed in by braces of patrol cars with winking bubble lights.
Yves also noticed the way Alishaer tensed and perspired whenever police vehicles were in view. He said, "Don't have your papers, huh?"
"You're an illegal. Don't bother to deny it. I wasn't born yesterday, pal."
Alishaer looked sheepish and nodded. "I will get my papers," he promised earnestly. "My cousin in New York will help me."
Yves shrugged. "Can't say as I blame you, Al. Everybody in the world wants to come to America. You know that song? On the boats and on the planes, they're comin' to America; never looking back again, they're comin' to America -- today?"
"Well, Neil Diamond is crud anyway. No big loss." Yves paused and assumed a more serious look as his eyes remained pinned to the road. "Was it a tough time for you, getting over here?"
Alishaer's lips twitched. "There were some hardships for me."
The boy said nothing for a moment. "It must suffice to say that...some people will do anything for hope of better life."
"Sure, but I mean like in general," persisted Yves. "Did you stow away on a ship or what?"
Alishaer squirmed. "Please sir. It is not a subject I like to open, Mr. Yves -- with the respect that is due." He took a deep breath. "It is behind me now. You can understand this?"
Yves glanced over at his passenger. "I can respect that. Gotta keep your eye on the prize, huh?"
Alishaer nodded nervously. Yves turned back to the road. Alishaer's discomfort give him the willies. He badly wanted to change the subject because the silence was too thick. After a few minutes he wondered aloud awkwardly whether Alishaer would like to listen to something other than Johnny Cash.
"You're probably not up on our music, but we got a lot of it. I have some CDs. Anything you want, really: country, western, bluegrass..."
"In Turkmenistan we get often the music of Cherry Nuk-Nuk."
"What the hell is that? Like Turkish folk music?"
"No sir, she is the world's most spectacular Inuit pop singer."
"No sir, from Canada."
"Canada, huh? Well." Yves frowned. "I don't really hold with foreign music."
They listened to more Johnny Cash. The sun set behind them. Yves sank into driving space. After passing through the pulsing turnpikes of Omaha the traffic changed, a new melange with a diminished western influence and a bewildering aftertaste of Jersey-style lane defense; at the core a steady thread of clockwork shipping fleets, lines of vessels manned by men Yves could give a friendly nod to.
The citizen band was quiet. Mumbles and squelches.
He glanced over at his passenger who was again sleeping fitfully, hugging himself tightly and rolling his head back and forth. Poor kid.
Before Des Moines Yves pulled into a Texaco to fuel up and grab some chow. Alishaer was preoccupied, quiet, eating mechanically. Yves felt bad. He knew he'd stirred up some mud by asking the kid about his ordeals. He wanted to make it up to him somehow. "Listen," said Yves as he lit up a Camel; "you want to see something cool?"
Alishaer looked up. "Something that is cool?"
Yves nodded and paid the bill, then waved Alishaer after him as he strode out to the lot, glistening under the harsh fluorescents from the recent rain. Under such light everybody looked exhausted and jaundiced, a little bit like ghouls. Yves paused at the rear door of his rig's long white trailer.
"Now," he announced, "I've signed non-disclosures up the wazoo about this stuff, so you got to promise me this is just between us. Right?"
"Right," said Alishaer, eyes glued to the steel doors.
"You know what gives America an edge over everybody else in the world?" he asked leadingly.
"Hard work?" guessed Alishaer.
"Well yeah," admitted Yves, "but what does all that hard work lead to? I'll tell ya: technology. America's got the greatest technology anywhere. And, you know: the rest of the world don't know the half of it." He allowed himself a little smile. "I guarantee you ain't never seen anything like this."
Yves stepped up on the bumper and unlocked a small panel. It swung open to reveal a tiny keypad upon which he tapped a long code. From inside the trailer came the quadruple snap of heavy locks disengaging. "I'm only supposed to open her up for inspections, but I'll fudge the log and say I had to check something."
"Okay," said Alishaer breathlessly.
Yves swung open one of the twin doors, then leaned down and offered his hand to help Alishaer up. The kid was surprisingly light. Alishaer blinked in the somber blue glow of the inspection lights, attempting to focus on the hazy forms arrayed beyond a taut wall of plastic sheeting.
Alishaer's eyes went wide. "Are they...?"
Yves nodded with a satisfied grunt. "That's right, Al," he said. "Robots."
Alishaer was transfixed by the rows of motionless shadows, his brow knitted. Upon those closest to the sheet the feeble blue inspection light revealed braided hair, tranquil faces, closed eyes, limp hands, legs locked like horses. "They are all women," he whispered.
Yves looked at his boots and cleared his throat. "Well, yeah son, these here speak to exactly what I was talking about. In America we got men so rich and so smart they don't have time for girls. But they're still men, and they've got needs. Needs nothing inflatable can fill, right?"
Alishaer smiled uncertainly, baffled but fascinated.
"They need something that really looks like a woman," said Yves, thumbs in his belt, "but something you can switch off when there's work needing doing."
"They are like dolls?"
Yves frowned. "Well, maybe. Dolls that dress themselves, and walk around, and even talk to you a little. Dolls with the AI in them. Dolls that'll run you about a quarter billion a piece."
"Amazing," admitted Alishaer.
The trucker grinned, then wiped it away with his knuckle. He unzipped a slit in the plastic and waved Alishaer closer. The air smelled like flowers. Each female form stood in a narrow cylinder with a modest collection of accessories bundled in plastic at their feet. "This batch looks all Asian," said Yves. He snorted. "Asians are real popular." He fished a keycard out of his jacket and flashed it through a slot on the base of the closest container.
A pink light winked on from above, and the woman opened her eyes.
Alishaer gasped. Yves chuckled. "No shit, huh?" he said, elbowing the boy in the ribs in a friendly way. "Pardon my language," he added.
"She is...not real?"
Yves shook his head. "Hell no, Al. That's what I'm saying. This is technology." He rapped suddenly on the side of the container, making Alishaer jump but causing no response in the woman. "See that, Al? She doesn't even flinch."
Alishaer touched his face nervously and backed against the plastic wall. "She blinks!" he whispered.
"Well of course she blinks," chortled Yves. "Like I said, they're supposed to look real. Realer than real. It's really something, huh?"
Alishaer was sweating. "I am needing some air, Mr. Yves, sir." He began to pat the sheet wall in search of the zippered opening. "I am dizzy, sir." He found the slit and fell over himself on the way out.
Yves shut everything up and then hopped to the pavement and swung closed the doors. Alishaer sat on a concrete parking buttress, hugging himself and staring at the stars forlornly. "I am sorry, Mr. Yves," he said quietly. "I did not mean to spoil the cool thing."
The trucker kicked a couple of stones around. "Forget about it. Some guys it freaks out. I thought it was kind of creepy myself the first time I saw them, honestly. You know?"
"Like I said, forget about it. Don't let it get to you. Eye on the prize, right?"
Alishaer nodded again.
"We should get back on the road," said Yves.